Macbeth begins the play as a brave soldier and a respected hero. Yet his ambition and desire for power sets him on a path of terrible deeds which means that at the end he is no more than a ‘dead butcher’.
• Macbeth is described with the epithet ‘brave’ as he fights for his king and country.
• Shakespeare establishes him as the epitome (best example) of a courageous, honourable man.
Context: The Jacobean era was one of political and social unrest. Military strength was seen as an important part of being a man as was loyalty to the king.
‘so foul and fair a day ‘
• Macbeth’s opening words comment on the day and weather, and immediately associate him with the witches’ chant: ‘fair is foul’. It makes us wonder whether he is already under the witches’ spell.
• The use of paradox emphasises the theme of appearance and reality; the day is ambiguous, just like the witches’ prophecies which are full of ‘fair’ promises yet have ‘foul’ consequences.
Context: The Jacobean audience were superstitious with deep-rooted beliefs in witches and their malevolent (evil) power. Macbeth’s words, which link him to the witches, would have made Shakespeare’s audience uneasy and perhaps distrust him or fear for him.
‘I have no spur… but only vaulting ambition… which o’er leaps itself’
• Macbeth is fully aware that his ambition is his only motivation in killing the king.
• The horse metaphor shows his ambition to be incredibly powerful. Macbeth already knows that his ambition could lead to disaster as it loses control and ‘o’er leaps itself’, yet he still chooses to murder his king.
Context: Shakespeare uses the Greek tragedy convention of a tragic and noble hero who has a fatal flaw or weakness, a hamartia, which leads to his downfall. Macbeth’s hamartia is his ambition.
‘when you durst do it, then you were a man’
• Macbeth is manipulated by Lady Macbeth, who uses ideas of manhood to control him.
• She taunts him with a lack of courage, saying that a real man would kill the king.
‘I could not say ‘Amen’
• Immediately after the regicide, Macbeth is consumed with guilt and is unable to say the traditional response to a religious blessing. His actions have placed him beyond God’s love and comfort.
Context: Regicide (killing of a king/queen) was seen as an appalling crime because it was a crime against God. The Jacobeans believed in the divine right of kings, that God anointed (chose) the monarch. The audience would understand the sacrilegious nature of Macbeth’s crime and appreciate his overwhelming guilt.
‘my mind is full of scorpions’
• Macbeth finds that becoming king does not bring him happiness.
• The metaphor shows that he is deeply troubled. The sense of pain and viciousness in this image allows the audience to understand his torment. We are not sure whether his mind is tortured with the guilt of regicide or the fear and suspicion that plagues him now that he is king.
‘give to the edge o’ the sword/his wife, his babes’
• Macbeth’s desire for complete power leads him to commit despicable acts such as the murder of Macduff’s family.
• The imperative verb captures his cold-hearted sense of purpose and the use of ‘babes’, a symbol of innocence, illustrates that Macbeth is fully aware of what he is ordering. Ambition has stripped Macbeth of all compassion; he is now more monster than man.
• Macduff’s later grief acts as a foil to Macbeth’s lack of emotion.
‘life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player’
• Macbeth’s last soliloquy reveals his thoughts after he hears the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
• The tone is depressed and resigned as he reflects on the meaning of life. The metaphor suggests that life is without purpose, as devoid of substance as a shadow.
• The plosive sounds of ‘poor player’ reveal his bitterness as Macbeth realises that he has lost; his ambition has come to nothing. His words remind the audience that we are watching a play; a play that teaches us about the folly of mankind and the dangers of ambition.
Grade 9 Analysis
Look at the character in a different way.
Does Shakespeare leave us with any sympathy for Macbeth?
Yes: The pain of his last soliloquy shows his realisation that his actions have had no meaning and his lack of happiness in his kingship. The poetic control presents to us a man of sensitivity and intelligence, not the brutish ‘dead butcher’ that Malcolm dismisses him as. Furthermore, there is a sense of nobility at the end when he dies with honour and bravery as he rises to the challenge of fighting Macduff, stating ‘bear-like, I must stay the course’. The simile of ‘bear-like’ reflects his determination to die bravely. Bears were seen as noble and the comparison shows that, despite his crimes, Macbeth still retains the vestiges of nobility. At the end, he is still ‘brave Macbeth’ and the epitome of a fearless fighter.
No: His actions mark him as a man of brutal violence. The regicide places him beyond redemption for a Jacobean audience, and all audiences would be horrified by his calculated ‘slaughter’ in Act 4 of Macduff’s wife and children.
Shakespeare used the structure of Greek tragedy to create a hero who has a hamartia (fatal flaw). In Macbeth’s case, this hamartia is ambition which changes him from an honourable man to a violent murderer. Yet we still see human qualities and this makes us question ourselves as to how far we would go for power and feel pathos (pity) at how far Macbeth has fallen.